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  • Is the Onnagata Necessary?
  • Samuel L. Leiter

Before I respond to Frank Episale's essay on English-language writing about the onnagata, I must by way of full disclosure mention that Frank (whom I will refer to by his first name, if I may) was a student of mine at the CUNY Graduate Center in a class that covered traditional Japanese theatre. My memory is uncertain, but I believe this essay was submitted in an earlier form during the course.

Frank's essay ventures to do something tricky, that is, to survey the English-language literature about kabuki, a theatre form whose principal research is published in Japanese. This means he must not only be very familiar with kabuki, but with the principal scholarship about it in English, at least since World War II. That body of writing, while substantial, is not overwhelmingly so, and serious treatment of the onnagata in particular is not abundant, so examining what is available should not be excessively demanding. Regardless of the comment by Julie Iezzi that Frank quotes, however, to the effect that one no longer needs to know Japanese to do research on kabuki because so much is now available in English, I would argue that the project of doing such research without Japanese requires extreme caution. Writing about kabuki in English is not the same as writing about it in Japanese because the readership is different and scholars often adjust what they write to make room for differences in cultural assumptions. Moreover, a critique of the English literature on a narrow subject like this should be supported by some knowledge of how the subject is dealt with in the language of the culture concerned. [End Page 112]

Before I get to the crux of my response, which concerns comments Frank makes about my own writing on the onnagata, I would like to address some technical issues. First, Frank notes that Iezzi's comment ignores non-English-language prewar literature on kabuki and then he proceeds to vaguely sketch in the nature of that literature, but he offers few specifics and no documentation of sources, so his references are unclear. I also question the reason for his mentioning in this context of Pound, Fenellosa, and Yeats, who had nothing to do with kabuki. I should add, though, that Yeats knew a little more about than just its masks. The first performance of his At the Hawk's Well in 1915 had the services of the gifted Japanese dancer and choreographer Michio Itō. Helen Caldwell (1977: 44-45) points out that, despite Itō's minimal knowledge of (he hadn't seen a performance since he was seven), his newly discovered appreciation of chanting (utai), which he heard performed by two Japanese artists in Pound's flat, and his background in kabuki dance, were of considerable assistance.

Again, regarding early Western exposure to kabuki, Frank's brief overview never specifically mentions the extremely influential visits to America and Europe, beginning in 1899, of Kawakami Otojirō and Kawakami Sadayakko. They have been the subject of a great deal of English-language writing scholarship, most recently Joseph L. Anderson's remarkably detailed Enter a Samurai: Kawakami Otojirō and Japanese Theatre in the West (2011), although that tome probably appeared after his paper was already written. But Leslie Downer's Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West (2003) is certainly significant. Most importantly, in the context of discussion about not only Sadayakko, to whom it devotes half its space, but of actresses challenging the ingrained tradition of men playing female roles, Ayako Kano's brilliant Acting like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, and Nationalism (2001) is crucial, because it employs the feminist discourse about which Frank is so concerned.

I bring these omissions up because the Kawakamis' performances, while not pure kabuki, were deeply imbued with kabuki conventions, including the onnagata, who performed in the same plays with Sadayakko and who many early foreign critics took for real women (advertisements even preceded their names with "Miss").

The meat of Frank's essay lies in his dispute with scholars such as myself for our failure to go beyond "essentializing" the nature of...